By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
COP26 kicked off today in Glasgow, not with a bang, but with some stumbles, transportation and otherwise.
Curiously, the leader of the country hosting the summit, UK prime minister Boris Johnson was out front trying to manage expectations downward, as per the Guardian, Cop26 summit at serious risk of failure, says Boris Johnson:
The Cop26 climate summit is at serious risk of failure because countries are still not promising enough to restrict global temperature rises to below 1.5C, Boris Johnson has warned.
In a blunt admission after two days of preliminary talks at the G20 meeting of world leaders, the prime minister conceded little progress had been made – and the conference is not on track to achieve a deal that keeps the goal alive. He put the chances of success as “six out of 10”.
“Currently, let’s be in no doubt, we are not going to hit it and we have to be honest with ourselves,” he said. The commitments being made so far were a “drop in the rapidly warming ocean”.
An account in the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Hopes unfulfilled’: G20 fails to agree on climate change goals reinforced BoJo’s pessimism.
Rome: Hopes that leaders of the world’s largest economies would provide momentum for the first days of the United Nations climate talks in Glasgow were dashed when they failed to come to agreement over deeper emissions cuts and a phase-out of coal power.
Note also that two key players won’t even be at the COP26 table. China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are not attending.
So much for saving the planet.
Other than pass along these tidbits precisely, the focus of this post is not to discuss the prospects for COP26.
Plastics are the New Coal
Instead, a report published earlier this month,The New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change, issued by Beyond Plastics caught my eye, offering another reason for getting serious about the world’s plastics problem: pushing plastics exacerbates climate change.
Permit me to quote at length from the press release launching the report, as I don’t think that the connection between plastics production is at all well known, let alone well understood.This report uses a known problem – coal-fired power plants -as a benchmark, and examines ten stages in creating, using, and disposing of plastics. These include (from the Beyond Plastics website):
fracking for plastics, transporting and processing fossil fuels, gas crackers, other plastics feedstock manufacturing, polymers and additives production, exports and imports, foamed plastic insulation, “chemical recycling”, municipal waste incineration, and plastics in the water.
It also makes clear what climate campaigners are up against. The G20 failed to come to any consensus about phasing out coal, as I mentioned above. But even if that well known climate change contributor were to be addressed, immediately and effectively, climate campaigners are locked in an ongoing whack-a-mole scenario with fossil fuel interests.
Plastics are on track to contribute more climate change emissions than coal plants by 2030, a new report finds. As fossil fuel companies seek to recoup falling profits, they are increasing plastics production and cancelling out greenhouse gas reductions gained from the recent closures of 65 percent of the country’s coal-fired power plants.
The New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change by Beyond Plastics at Bennington College analyzes never- before-compiled data of ten stages of plastics production, usage, and disposal and finds that the U.S. plastics industry is releasing at least 232 million tons of greenhouse gases each year, the equivalent of 116 average-sized coal-fired power plants.
And that number is growing quickly. In 2020, the plastics industry’s reported emissions increased by 10 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions over 2019. Construction is currently underway on another 12 plastics facilities, and 15 more are planned—altogether these expansions may emit more than 40 million more tons of greenhouse gases annually by 2025.
“The fossil fuel industry is losing money from its traditional markets of power generation and transportation. They are building new plastics facilities at a staggering clip so they can dump their petrochemicals into plastics. This petrochemical buildout is cancelling out other global efforts to slow climate change,” said Judith Enck, former EPA Regional Administrator and President of Beyond Plastics.
In addition to accelerating climate change, plastic pollutes water, air, soil, wildlife, and health— particularly in low-income communities and communities of color. The U.S. plastics industry reported releasing 114 million tons of greenhouse gases nationwide in 2020. Ninety percent of its reported climate change pollution occurs in just 18 communities where residents earn 28% less than the average U.S. household and are 67% more likely to be people of color. In addition to greenhouse gases, these facilities also emit massive amounts of particulates and other toxic chemicals into the air, threatening residents’ health.
What the industry reports is less than half of what it actually releases, according to the analysis by Material Research. The Maine-based firm examined data from federal agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Commerce, and Department of Energy, and found a severe undercounting of plastics’ climate impacts. In addition to the 114 million tons of greenhouse gases the industry reported releasing in 2020, Material Research identified another 118 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions from other stages, the equivalent of more carbon dioxide than that of 59 average-sized coal-fired power plants.
It is important to note that the report’s estimates are conservative. “This report represents the floor, not the ceiling, of the U.S. plastics industry’s climate impact,” noted Jim Vallette, president of Material Research and the report’s author. “Federal agencies do not yet count many releases because current regulations do not require the industry to report them. For example, no agency tracks how much greenhouse gas is released when plastic trash is burned in cement kilns, nor when methane leaks from a gas processing plant, nor when fracked gas is exported from Texas to make single-use plastics in India.”
As Congress finalizes federal spending bills and the United Nations prepares to meet for COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland next month, their failure to acknowledge and act to reduce plastics’ contribution to climate change threatens to undermine global climate change mitigation efforts.
“The scale of the plastics industry’s greenhouse gas emissions is staggering, but it’s equally concerning that few people in government or in the business community are even talking about it. That must change quickly if we hope to remain within the 1.5° C global temperature increase scientists have pinpointed as critical to avoiding the most devastating impacts of climate change,” said Enck.
In addition to the full report, the details of this research are available at www.BeyondPlastics.org, including analysis of the plastics industry that has never been made available to the public.
The big takeaway from the Beyond Plastics report: plastics are the new coal.
Let’s look briefly at what’s happened when U.S. regulators have sought to address coal power-plant regulation. Well, for some of that story, see today’s cross-post, ‘The Supreme Court Could Destroy the Planet’: Review of EPA Power Triggers Alarm. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that challenges whether the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has authority under the Clean Air Act to restructure the U.S energy system. I only mention the issue her as important; I refer readers who wish to delve into details to the cross post. But if the Supreme Court rules as I fear it might, and prevents the Biden administration from addressing the old coal, absent new legislative authority, I fear the chances that regulators will be able to regulate plastics, e.g. the new coal, look dim. (even though I am of course aware that the statutory authority for so doing would be different). But the political problem – and the opposing forces – would be similar, and would certainly avail themselves of similar strategy and tactics.
Against that pessimistic backdrop, I did spot a small cause for optimism in some news emanating from Louisiana, a state where fossil fuel issues are integral to the state’s current economy. According to the Advocate, a Baton Rouge newspaper, Massive Louisiana plastics plant faces 2+ year delay for tougher environmental review:
A new, more stringent review of the environmental impacts of a massive proposed plastics plant along the Mississippi River in St. James Parish will likely take more than two years.
Environmental groups are cheering that scrutiny, arguing it could provide a more realistic assessment of the environmental damage the plant would do to an area they say already bears a heavy burden of pollution. But some local government and business leaders are trying to rally support for a project that could create about 1,200 permanent jobs and pour millions of dollars into the local economy.
The [Army Corps of Engineers] had already approved permits for the Sunshine Project, a $9.4 billion plastics plant that Formosa has been trying to build for three years, but it rescinded them a year ago. Environmental groups filed a lawsuit claiming the environmental study was inadequate, and the Corps acknowledged errors.
So, the good news is that this expanded review will take at least two years. Dare I hope that in the interim, a consensus might build that we need to curtail plastics production dramatically – and then, perhaps, this plant – and others like it – won’t be built at all. Okay, maybe I’m getting way ahead of the situation here. But I can dream, can’t I?
Boris Doesn’t Believe in the Recycling Fairy
Finally, I must report that I agree with something the BBC quoted Boris Johnson as saying last week in Recycling plastics does not work, says Boris Johnson:
Answering children’s questions ahead of the COP26 climate change summit, the prime minister said reusing plastics “doesn’t begin to address the problem”.
Instead, he said, “we’ve all got to cut down our use of plastic
Now, the Recycling Association, immediately and predictably denounced the PM, saying he’d “completely lost the plastic plot”, according to the BBC. I guess I might have also come out swinging, if the PM had just upended my organisation’s raison d’être.
Other campaigners, however, admitted BoJo has a point here – a good one, for that matter. Per the BBC:
But some anti-plastic campaigners praised the prime minister’s stance and urged him to follow it up with measures to dramatically reduce plastic at source.
Sian Sutherland, co-founder of A Plastic Planet, said: “Less than 10% [of plastic] is actually recycled in the UK. Despite being touted by industry as a solution to the problem, all it has done is justify overproduction and created an industrial addiction to this indestructible, toxic material.”
Over to what Johnson said, as reported by the BBC:
…[T]he PM said it was a “mistake” to think society can recycle its way out of the problem, and added: “It doesn’t work.”
Asked later about Mr Johnson’s comments, his official spokesman said the PM continued to encourage recycling – though he said relying on it alone would be a “red herring”.
The prime minister’s words might have been careless, but they have an element of truth.
Polls consistently show many people feel they’re doing their bit to protect the climate if they gather up plastic bottles and take the car up to the recycling point on a Saturday.
But in truth, recycling is a bit of a soft option. It’s far less important than many other actions to curb emissions, such as stopping flying, or buying an electric car, or giving up meat. But these actions are harder to do.
Now, I repeat Johnson has a point – but that point only stretches so far. Recycling isn’t the answer to the world’s plastics problem. So, no matter how much we ramp up recycling efforts, they won’t magic the world’s plastic problem away.
What’s necessary is to two steps: stop producing ing so much plastics in the first instance, particularly for unnecessary throw-away packaging and shiny consumer uses, where other more sustainable materials would impose less of an environmental cost. We should reserve a tiny production of a plastics quota for certain vital purposes: medical devices, for example.
Second, is to figure out how to collect and render less harmful the plastics that have already made their way into the environment.
We can’t stop by merely agreeing with Johnson’s characteristically all-to-glib shot across the bow. Recycling isn’t the answer.
Instead, some questions we must ask ourselves. What is? And how will these policies be implemented?